Okay, so Donald Trump has not managed to build the border wall, repeal Obamacare, or reform the US tax system in his first 100 days in office. But to call the beginning of his presidency unproductive would be a mistake.
Unlike previous presidents, historians and political observers say, Trump’s biggest changes involve tearing down institutions and rules rather than creating new ones. In doing so he has not only dismantled regulations designed to protect consumers, workers, and the environment. He is, says James Grossman, the executive director of the American Historical Association, introducing nothing less than “a different approach to government.”
Republicans have historically been inclined to “tilt towards market-based solutions, and Democrats to regulatory-based ones,” Grossman notes. But Trump has undone regulatory structures created by Republican Richard Nixon in the 1970s, and supported by another Republican, George H.W. Bush, two decades later. Trump’s early actions represent a return to pre-New Deal America.
To be fair, much of the Republican party has shifted since Bush to embrace “small government,” nationalism, and, in some cases, a tolerance of racism. Trump just embodies that shift.
But his early actions represent nothing less than a “return to pre-New Deal America,” said Heather Cox Richardson, a political historian at Boston College. (The New Deal was president Franklin Roosevelt’s ambitious, interventionist, Great Depression-era program that created Social Security and funded massive public-works projects.) Trump has pledged not to destroy Social Security, but the New Deal’s overall promise of a support network for US citizens is on the line.
“If you view government as an active force in public life, that over time is increasing its ability to help people,” then you probably won’t have liked Trump’s first 100 days, Grossman said. The Freedom Caucus, Congress’s Republican far-right wing, on the other hand, is cautiously thrilled. “This is just the first 100 days, and it looks like the second 100 days will be even bigger and better,” said Adam Brandon, president of FreedomWorks, the activist group that advocates for smaller government and endorsed many Freedom Caucus politicians.
Slashing consumer and worker protection
The Trump White House is explicit that its goal is “getting government out of the way.” Its website touts 28 pieces of legislation that the president has signed in his first 100 days. Thirteen of the 28 use the Congressional Review Act (CRA) to rescind bills passed late in Barack Obama’s presidency. Many of them involve consumer- or labor-related protections. Here is a sample:
- Trump rescinded protections on broadband and other telecommunications’ users privacy, allowing companies like AT&T and Comcast to search customers’ location and web browsing history for advertising and marketing purposes.
- He rescinded the Fair Pay and Safe Workplaces Act, which had increased disclosure for companies that had violated labor laws. He also reestablished hurdles to states setting up retirement accounts for low-wage workers.
- He delayed enforcement of rules that would limit the amount of silica and beryllium workers can be exposed to, putting them at risk of lung disease.
- He rescinded a rule that blocks gun sales to certain people deemed mentally ill.
Other, non-CRA moves include:
- Financial brokers will no longer have to act “in the best interest” of their clients. (This still needs to be approved by the Department of Labor to go into effect.)
- The proposed budget would cut $2.5 billion from the Department of Labor, and entirely defund the US Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board, which investigates chemical accidents.
In addition, Trump instituted a federal hiring freeze and instructed agencies to eliminate two regulations for every new one they make, and backed a health care bill that would increase costs for the elderly and the poor.
Groups that speak for US workers are apoplectic. “If Trump wanted to help working men and women ‘prosper and grow,'” as he said on the campaign trail, “he would have acted very differently during his first 100 days,” said a recent Economic and Policy Institute institute report.
But the US stock markets continue to rally. Trump is on track to oversee the third-best market performance for his first 100 days of any US president since World War Two, judging by the S&P 500. Small-business confidence is also strong, although US GDP growth hit its lowest point in three years in the first three months of 2017. (The slowdown began before Trump took office, but the GDP figure was still lower than expected.)
Downsizing the State Department
Trump’s proposed budget includes a nearly 30% funding cut for the State Department and international programs, the deepest cut outside of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
While the budget isn’t likely to pass exactly as is, the State Department is already debilitated, ex-employees say.
Key meetings with foreign leaders are handled directly by Trump’s close advisors in the White House. Nearly 200 State Department jobs that are politically appointed and require Senate confirmation are still empty (paywall), and are likely to remain so until next year. Dozens of countries don’t yet have US ambassadors. Foreign dignitaries in Washington say they’re struggling to find peers to talk to in the US government—and secretary of state Rex Tillerson plans to cut another 2,300 positions.
In the absence of a strong State Department, US foreign policy has lurched from one extreme to another on subjects from China’s currency manipulation to the US’s involvement in Syria, as the president changes his mind, leaving the US’s allies and adversaries struggling to calibrate their relationship with the world’s largest economy.
Ending US “soft power”
President John F. Kennedy formed the US Agency for International Development (USAID), a group of highly skilled professionals to assist underdeveloped countries, in 1961 “because the nation’s interest and the cause of political freedom require it.” He established the Peace Corps of talented young Americans to work in the same areas as volunteers. The two groups represented a crystallizing of US foreign aid policy, after piecemeal efforts made to help refugees and devastated countries after WWII.
Both were embraced by Democratic and Republican presidents alike. George W. Bush proposed doubling the number of Peace Corps volunteers in 2003, for example, and Ronald Reagan pushed every year for a greater budget for US foreign aid. “Our national interests are inextricably tied to the security and development of our friends and allies,” Reagan said in 1981.
Under Trump, USAID’s $27 billion budget faces the same 29% chop as the State Department, and the administration proposes eliminating the agency entirely in dozens of countries. The budget proposal includes no mention of the Peace Corps, which could mean its $400 million budget is completely eliminated.
“This is a ‘hard power’ budget. It is not a ‘soft power’ budget,” director of the Office of Management and Budget Mick Mulvaney told reporters when it was rolled out.
Gutting the EPA
The Environmental Protection Agency was established by Nixon in 1970 to “make a coordinated attack on the pollutants which debase the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the land that grows our food,” after US companies’ emissions left cities smog-ridden and rivers flammable.
Trump hired a climate-change denier to head the agency, who staffed it with coal and fossil-fuel industry advisors, and removed the word “science” from its mission statement. He proposes trimming the budget by 30%, cutting 3,000 jobs, and plans to end some programs entirely. He also signed an order to kill the Obama “Clean Power Plan,” which lowers carbon-pollution limits for power plants and was projected to save thousands of lives a year.
Trump supporters in Congress say US companies are smarter than they used to be about pollutants, and won’t go back to their pre-EPA ways. “None of us want to go back to any kind of polluted water, air, or land,” upstate New York Rep. Chris Collins told Quartz. But the US was regulating emissions to an extent “that drives our companies out of business.”
Trump famously promised to “drain the swamp” and the White House touts “accountability” as one of its early achievements. But governance experts say the administration is shaping up to be one of the least transparent ever. It has cut down on the information available on the White House website, and won’t release visitors logs, reversing Obama-era policies.
“Trump has refused to release his taxes, has released only very limited health information, and has narrowed press access among other things,” said Anne Weisman, chief FOIA counsel with the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, which uses legal action to force the US government to disclose information. (She is suing the White House over the visitor log issue). “I think he starts from a position of non-disclosure, stemming from his business career where non-disclosure agreements were the norm,” she said.
A divided US ahead
As federal oversight and regulation recede, state and local governments are likely to become more important. In four years, the end result could be a country in which teaching standards, emissions rules, and other regulations vary far more widely from state to state than they do now. Over the long term, that could make for an even more politically divided country, as businesses and citizens move to the states that best suit their needs or temperaments. That is likely to exacerbate the political partisanship that dogged the 2016 election campaign.
A previous version of this article mistakenly identified Adam Brandon as president of the Freedom Caucus, not Freedom Works.